Written by: John White on May 11th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France, 1988
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Colo Tavernier, Claude Chabrol
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Francois Cluzet, Marie Trintignant, Nils Tavernier
DVD released: July 27, 2004
Approximate running time: 108 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (actually 1.72:1)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Home Vision Entertainment
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.95
Synopsis: In occupied France during World War II, Marie has become resolved to her miserable lot as an unhappy housewife with little to feed her two young children on. Her best friend is taken by the Nazis for being a Jew and she finds herself helping a pregnant neighbor to get rid of her unborn child. When her War disabled husband returns her misery increases and she boast to a new prostitute friend, Lulu, that she can help her if she is ever needing an abortion. Soon she is being sent plenty of pregnant prostitutes and is starting to make good money. When she moves to a new house she lets her spare room out to Lulu for her customers and makes even more money. Freed from her penury with this money Marie starts to dream and takes a lover, when her husband discovers her he informs the Police of her activities. The Vichy government decides to make an example of her to aid “moral restoration” and she is guillotined.
A Story of Women was Chabrol’s opportunity to realize a long cherished desire to make a movie about the Vichy government. Driven by the idea that real evil is not done by monsters but by weak men, Chabrol shows how the dreams and aspirations of one woman to escape her misery eventually lead to her becoming part of other’s misery and on to her demise. Marie becomes wealthier and her life becomes very comfortable as she build on a favor to a neighbor to become an entrepreneur dealing in abortion and prostitution. The women around her are in similar misery with unwanted children, pathetic husbands and selling themselves to survive.
Marie learns to play the system and take advantage of this misery and she frees herself from her marriage to the point of her husband’s impotence and then cuckolding. Her husband can’t find work and does cut-out collages to pass the time, the same skills he uses to send an anonymous note to the authorities to have Marie arrested. Marie develops links with the Nazis to help her business and her amoral development is complete.
The final part of the film deals with the state tribunal that condemns Marie to death. The tribunal is driven by a prosecutor, a retired colonel, who enjoys the condemning of souls and the tribunal’s principal concern about the abortions is that they weaken the nation by lowering the population. That the real cruelty in this film is perpetuated by those who collaborate with the Nazis is Chabrol’s central concern. These people who take advantage of the occupation to carry out venal acts of judgement and meaningless advocacy are rightly exposed. When Marie is to be guillotined she says a last prayer in her nun administered prison – “Hail Mary, full of shit”.
There are good actors, bad actors and actors who make anything worth watching. Huppert is in the latter class and here she portrays the naïve morally ambiguous Marie brilliantly. When faced with an abortion that has gone wrong leading to a death and a suicide she is amazed at what she has wrought but basically concerned about her own skin. Huppert presents a portrayal of a young woman who takes a way out to become more comfortable and whose self sufficiency leads to her downfall.
Story of Women is one of the best films of Chabrol’s career and possibly his finest non-thriller. It bears the hallmark of his recent films with the presence of lots of the Chabrol family, and deals with many of Chabrol’s ongoing themes – social climbing, family routine and what women do to survive. Story of Women is a magnificent work.
If only all of Chabrol’s films were released by Homevision! The film is presented anamorphically with an excellent sharp print. Other reviews state that the print is actually framed at 1.72:1 rather than the labelled 1.66:1. The colors are excellent and there is no grain to speak of in the transfer. The sound is a very good mono track which deals with the voices and music as well as the effects and elements. The English Subtitles are excellent.
The extras include interviews with producer Marin Karmitz who is very engaging about the films difficulties in getting finance and then distribution in the US because of dealing with the death penalty and abortion. There is an interview with the novelist whose book the film is based on, an introduction from a critic and, best of all, Chabrol talking about several of the scenes from the movie. The insert leaflet has an essay on the film and a Chabrol filmography.
Homevision have done a marvellous job on a great film. For a different kind of war film which talks about women and status this is the ticket. Buy it.